Anatomy of Flight
You are thirteen years old and your father is nailing a wing to the wall above your sister’s bed. You stand in the hallway, imagining a goose with a tattered bloody body dying in one of the coops outside. The whole wall shakes with the addition of four, fix, six nails, too many for a wing that spans barely two feet across. Feathers and lymph rain down on your sister’s pillow.
This is for being a dirty slut, he tells her, punctuating each word with a hammer blow.
Rotten. Bam. Whore. Bam.
If. Your. Mother. Was. Still. Alive.
Bam, bam, bam.
Your sister stands silent and furious in the middle of her room, an older, angrier copy of you. Enough feathers have fallen to make it look like a snowstorm on her blanket.
Your father adds another nail, adds, this is a warning to your boyfriend, that rat bastard, and if I catch him sneaking around here again…
You are used to hearing the two of them fight, used to words you don’t understand, hegemony and veganism and fascist fucking pig. This is the first time in a long while that your father has actually succeeded in silencing your sister. You want to savor the silence, to lie under the dismembered wing and let the feathers float over your eyelids, brush your cheek with downy kisses.
Instead you will watch as your father storms out of the room. You will watch as your sister packs a suitcase and drags it to the door. You will stare down the empty road long after she has disappeared, hitching a ride into town to move in with her latest boyfriend, a college dropout who plays in heavy metal band. You will sleep in her bed that night, the lone wing watching over you, half a guardian angel.
The next day, you will go outside for chores and find your father wandering from coop to coop checking the latches on all the cages. You will walk with him silently, passing the geese in their individual wire boxes and looking discreetly for one that’s missing a wing. Some of the geese nip the air when you and your father pass, but most just sit honking faintly, their anemic necks hanging from the cages like wilted asparagus. In a few weeks your sister will reappear with a court date and a metal hoop through her nose, but right now this day seems like the end of the world.
You can’t give them freedom, your father says abruptly. If you give them freedom they just abuse it.
He does not look at you when he talks. He does not seem to be looking anywhere at all.
You are six years old and your father is teaching you how to pronounce foie gras, the r hot and guttural as a native francophone’s. Since the death of your mother he has been doing this more and more often, teaching you lessons that occupy half an evening and do not seem to lead anywhere. Tonight he won’t let you start dinner until you say the words exactly the way they do in Paris.
Your sister rolls her eyes at this. She has recently been expelled from the private school where she tried to bite the staff psychiatrist and has since begun making posters in protest of the farm’s practices. In marker and crayon she draws graphic illustrations of geese with swollen livers, geese tearing out their own feathers, geese cannibalizing each other out of stress. She tapes the posters to the door of your father’s room while he sleeps, but they are always gone by the time you wake up.
Don’t forget where the money comes from, your father always tells you. Don’t forget we work for people who think they’re above all this. Look them in the eye when you talk, but let them think whatever they want. As long as they bring in the money, that’s all that matters.
Most Sundays he goes into the city to haggle with the restaurant managers and sous chefs, men he mocks and calls fags behind their backs. He stands in the living room, lisping when he talks and twirling his finger in an approximation of a girly moustache. Your sister rolls her eyes and draws more posters.
No one is above meat, your father tells you. That’s what those people always forget. We’re all the same when it comes to meat.
You are eight years old and your friend Melanie has come over to play. Naturally, the first thing you do is take her out to the coops, the dozen long sheds with their fifteen hundred geese each. You spend most of your spare time out here, buried in library books, studying the various types and shapes of feathers: flight, alular, scapular, pinion, remix, rectrix. It is peaceful in the coops, the sick-sweet smell of bird dander underpinning the quiet mechanisms of flight: vane, rachis, barb, calamus.
You are giddy to have a friend, your friend, here at your house, and you are bursting with facts to tell her. The farm is scheduled to receive a new shipment of goslings tomorrow, and you tell her how the baby geese will arrive in boxes just like cartons of eggs. You parrot what your father has told you, how the female goslings are sexed in hatcheries by workers in rubber suits and gloves, how they are then killed or sent to other farms to be raised for meat. You have not yet learned that some facts are not universally interesting.
Ewww! Melanie screeches when she sees the rows and rows of geese, the dollops of green shit that cake the coop floor and clot in the webs of their feet. What’s wrong with you? she screams before running back to the house and demanding to be taken home.
Several years later you will overhear Melanie, no longer your friend, discussing how best to stick a finger down her throat with the other girls on the field hockey team. You will lurk in a bathroom stall, your own body too bony in some places and too pudgy in others, while they argue about the easiest way to do it, how long to wait after a meal so their parents don’t catch on. Your sister has already graduated from this phase, advancing last year to tiny crystalline baggies that she keeps tucked inside the roof of her mouth, the arch of her shoes, the pencil case in her locker. She has moved out of and back into your house so many times that you have lost count, returning each time with new tattoos, habits, and hatreds. Without acknowledging as much, you and your father are both waiting for the day when she doesn’t come home at all.
Listening to Melanie and her teammates, you think about how geese don’t have gag reflexes. You picture your father sliding lengths of tubing down the birds’ beaks — we don’t cut holes in their necks like goddamn barbarians, not on this farm — and flicking the switch on the pneumatic pump. Five seconds flat and the boiled corn mash is delivered into their stomachs, measured as precisely as other girls’ tiny waistlines. If you could go back to that day, this is the fact you would share with Melanie.
You are thirteen years old and Mike, your sister’s newest boyfriend, is opening your bedroom door one night, his movements heavy and silky as a panther’s.
Wrong room, you say to him sleepily, sitting up in a puddle of light. The coop yard is illuminated by floodlights to frighten away foxes and coyotes, but Mike has managed to sneak inside night after night without being seen by your father. For weeks now you have been listening to your sister’s headboard thump against the wall, a percussive beat that only comes after dark.
Now Mike slides into your bed as smoothly as if he has practiced it a hundred times.
I’m not looking for your sister, he says, his voice a soft growl in your ear. I’m looking for you.
You know you should make a noise. You’ve seen the way the geese act around a threat; you know you should be putting up a fight. Predator, your mind thinks, danger, help, but your mouth will not say it. You don’t want him to stop talking. You don’t want him to stop touching you. You want to keep listening to the soft snarl of his voice and feeling the way his fingers trace your body and bones, the way they make you feel as pretty as your sister.
And a few minutes later, when you stop liking the way he touches you, you will keep listening to the low purr of his voice. You will allow yourself to be carried away by the smooth logic, how if you really love something, you’ll give it away, let it all go. In the morning, you won’t look anyone in the eye.
You are five years old and seeing a goose up close for the first time. For weeks now you have watched the coops, trying to discern what it is that lures away your father, and sometimes even your mother and your sister, for hours at a time. You have seen flocks of geese flying over your house, of course, but you cannot reconcile the idea of those fluid, pepper-specked V’s with the low gray buildings in your backyard.
You wait till your parents are napping and your sister is engaged in knocking down the blanket fort you built earlier today. You slip out the back door and head straight for the coops. They are not locked during the day, and the first door you push on swings open.
To your five-year-old mind, it is more than you have ever seen of anything. There are cages everywhere, rows upon rows of dull white geese honking and hissing in their individual wire traps. There is no beauty here, none of the swift savagery of their airborne relatives, just glazed black eyes and crumpled, useless wings.
Eight years later, it will be one of these same wings that you tear from your sister’s wall the first week she fails to come home. You will separate it from the drywall above her bed, the sinews and stringy meat pulling away from the nails with a horrible ripping sound. Plaster will fall away with the feathers.
But at age five you have none of this adolescent strength. You simply go up to the first of the cages and throw open the latch, impossible for a goose but easy even for a kindergartener with chubby fingers. You do the same at the next cage and the next, a one-woman liberation front, not stopping to think where the geese will go once they have wobbled out of the cages. You succeed in rescuing nearly a dozen before the flaw in your plan becomes evident and they turn on you, pecking and nipping.
In the end, it is your mother who finds you. There are feathers everywhere and red welts all over your arms from where the escaped birds have bitten you. She scoops you up and carries you from the coop back to the house, where you wail and then hiccup your way through an explanation.
You just wanted to help, you tell her. You wanted to free them, to set them all loose. You tried to let them go, but they remained, ugly and unmovable, flightless, stuck.